Thursday, 11 February 2016

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: pre-Roman Celtic Society, part twelve

Cernunnos bust and inscription from the Pillar of the Boatmen, Parisii, early 1st cent AD.

Yesterday, I gave a crash course in using mythological subjects in early Celtic research and illustrated it with coins, an antiquity and a painting. Using ancient objects in researching the ancient Celts is most often done in a very slipshod manner based on "it looks like, so it must be" rather than a proper art-historical analysis. The "cultural property" meme has had the unknowing psychological effect of associating objects with locations instead of people. For example, the Gundestrup cauldron is believed by archaeologists, to have been made in Thrace because it is of Thracian workmanship. If there had been any analytical thought about the matter it would have soon been realized that, in the ancient world, artists were eager to associate themselves with wealthy patrons, regardless of where such patrons resided. The Gundestrup cauldron was made by Thracians who were working in Italy. This is evident from the models they used to copy a number of devices such as the Italian situla on the procession plate and the Italian style of the hippocamps (taken from a helmet decoration) which are very different from Thracian depictions of hippocamps. The imagery of the cauldron mixes Celtic and Greek mysteries themes and includes icons of Celtic battles in Italy including Taras and Herakleia (under Pyrrhus). All of these things give a possible range of dates starting with the defence of Taras and ending with the expulsion of the Celtic patrons from northern Italy, so I give the approximate date as ca. 275-200 BC.(but most likely more toward the earlier date). I also identified an Augustan revival of the native Thracian style which is represented by phalerae from the Sark and Stara Zagora hoards. Silver phalerae were popular presentation pieces in the time of Augustus and his Thracian puppet-ruler Rhoemetalces I who was eager to stress his Thracian culture (probably under directions from the emperor). The Stara Zagora hoard also contained silver cups of the Augustan period.

Cernunnos with torc and ram-headed serpent on the Gundestrup cauldron
The need for geographical associations could only link the Danish find spot with the imagined Thracian place of manufacture through the perambulations of the Cimbri and this, in turn, linked the Celtic Scordisci tribe as the Celtic patrons, because of their proximity to Thrace even though the Celtic iconography is very clearly associated with objects in present-day France. despite the fact that the native Thracian style had been extinct for about two hundred years prior to that event, the effect of the meme was so powerful as to have that fact ignored. There were other unnoticed clues, too: the Roman styles evident in the phalerae show that any object always shows signs of the time it was made; the chased background on the phalerae is far more open and slipshod than is seen on the earlier Thracian native style; and the native style never incorporated any classical style, only classical subjects. In Thrace, the classical styles reached their height of popularity during the time of Lysimachus who died in 281 BC. At that time, the native styles became rather provincial and it is no small wonder that those artists were eager to find a more receptive market, just as Italian artists were looking more toward Lysimachus court for their patronage. The Celts were ideal patrons. They were very wealthy and more interested in symbolic art than the late classical styles.Northern Italy, under the Etruscans had attracted artists from as far as Asia Minor (fleeing from Persian rule) for hundreds of years. Some of their devices, ultimately, were adapted by the Celts in the Rhineland.

Celtic chain-mail hook depicting ram-headed hippocamp
The ram-headed serpent held by Cernunnos on the Gundestrup cauldron is referenced by this ram-headed hippocamp in my collection. It is a Celtic chain-mail hook probably of the early third century BC, and I bought it from a bijouterie in Champagne. The shop, selling mostly modern jewellery, had a small antiquity collection (probably from an estate purchase) of mostly Celtic coins of the area along with a few Roman coins and this hook which was unidentified. It is common, in early Celtic art, for motifs to be recombined within their regions or carried elsewhere through the movements of people. In this case, the ram-headed hippocamp is in association with the typical Marnian scroll.

In Symbol & Image in Celtic Religious Art, Routledge, 1992, Miranda Green (p.89) gives the distribution of images of Cernunnos, in Romano-Celtic Europe:
"Images of the antlered deity occur, for the most part, on stone monuments. Their distribution is mainly in north central Gaul, but they appear in western areas, as at saintes and even in south-west Britain, at Cirencester. The tribes with whom Cernunnos was most popular included the Sequani, Aedui, Bituriges, Arverni, Santones, and Namnetes."
Cernunnos at Val Camonica, Italy.
photo: Luca Giarelli (cropped and tonal curves adjusted)
For his origins, however, she tracks him back to this example of rock-art at Val Camonica, Italy which dates to the fourth century BC. In this area, stag images are especially common. She describes him as having a torc on each arm and with a horned serpent. The figure of Cernunnos has his arms in the orans position as is commonly seen with the upper parts of facing figures on the small plates of the Gundestrup cauldron where they are mostly holding matched emblems in each hand.

There was a Celtic presence in northern Italy before the large movements of troops to the area in the fourth century BC. and the La Tène religion and art style has its genesis in that region. Thus, I find it quite likely that this was also where Cernunnos originated. For him to be adopted by the Celts, however, he must have had some sort of correlate in their homeland. Celtic statuary in northern Gaul, is restricted to the Roman Imperial period, so we would not expect anything earlier than that by way of images and it is also possible that his Celtic correlate existed only in lore and had not been a mainstream deity of the indigenous people. The Celtic coin imagery, also, dates after the Val Camonica pictograph so all we can say for certain is that something resonated with the Celts when they saw the the stag imagery at Val Camonica and it inspired this petroglyph with its Celtic torcs and religious connotation on account of the orans postion of the arms. The other Celtic imagery on the Gundestrup cauldron is later seen on coins of those areas that had recruiting bases for the Italian campaigns. Much of this imagery being eastern Armorican in its motifs and includes that of the Redones and the Aulerci Cenomani.. That imagery, too, has its genesis in the Rhineland area  where it undoubtedly also received impetus from northern Italy.

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